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In feminist theory, the male gaze is the act of depicting women and the world, in the visual arts and in literature, from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. In visual presentations, the male gaze has three perspectives: (i) that of the man behind the camera, (ii) that of the male characters within the film's cinematic representations; and (iii) that of the spectator gazing at the image.
The film critic Laura Mulvey coined the term male gaze, which is conceptually contrasted with the female gaze. As a way of seeing women and the world, the psychology of the male gaze is comparable to the psychology of scopophilia, the pleasure of looking; thus, the terms scopophilia and scoptophilia identify both the aesthetic pleasures and the sexual pleasures derived from looking at someone or something.:815
The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre introduced the concept of gaze ("le regard", also translated as "the look") in Being and Nothingness (1943). According to Sartre, the act of gazing at another human being creates a subjective power difference that is felt both by the gazer and the gazee, because the person gazed at is seen as "an object."
The cinematic concept of the male gaze is presented, explained, and developed in the essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975), in which Laura Mulvey proposes that sexual inequality—the asymmetry of social and political power between men and women—is a controlling social force in the cinematic representations of the sexes; and that the male gaze (the aesthetic pleasure of the male viewer) is a social construct derived from the ideologies and discourses of patriarchy. In the fields of media studies and feminist film theory, the male gaze is conceptually related to the behaviours of voyeurism (looking as sexual pleasure), scopophilia (pleasure from looking), and narcissism (pleasure from contemplating one's self).
In a narrative film, the visual perspective of the male gaze is the sight-line of the camera as the spectator's perspective — that of a heterosexual man whose sight lingers upon the curves of a woman's body. In narrative cinema, the male gaze usually displays the female character (woman, girl, child) on two levels of eroticism: (i) as an erotic object of desire for the characters in the filmed story; and (ii) as an erotic object of desire for the male viewer (spectator) of the filmed story. Such visualizations establish the roles of dominant-male and dominated-female, by representing the female as a passive object for the male gaze of the active viewer. The social pairing of the passive-object (woman) and the active-viewer (man) is a functional basis of patriarchy, i.e. gender roles that are culturally reinforced in and by the aesthetics (textual, visual, representational) of mainstream, commercial cinema; the movies of which feature the male gaze as more important than the female gaze, an aesthetic choice based upon the inequality of socio-political power between men and women.:14:127
As an ideological basis of patriarchy, socio-political inequality is realised as a value system, by which male-created institutions (e.g the movie business, advertising, fashion) unilaterally determine what is "natural and normal" in society. In time, the people of a society believe that the artificial values of patriarchy, as a social system, are the "natural and normal" order of things in society, because men look at women and women are looked at by men; hence the Western hierarchy of "inferior women" and "superior men" derives from misrepresenting men and women as sexual opponents, rather than as sexual equals.
Two forms of the male gaze are based upon the Freudian concept of scopophilia, the "pleasure that is linked to sexual attraction (voyeurism in extremis) and [the] scopophilic pleasure that is linked to narcissistic identification (the introjection of ideal egos)", which show how women have been forced to view the cinema from the perspectives (sexual, aesthetic, cultural) of the male gaze. In such cinematic representations, the male gaze denies the female's agency and human identity, thus dehumanizing a woman to the status of an object to be considered for her beauty, physique, and sex appeal, as defined in the cinematic male sexual fantasy.
The types of spectatorship that may occur while viewing a film can involve either unconsciously or consciously engaging in the typical, ascribed societal roles of men and women. In relation to phallocentrism, a film can be viewed from the perspectives of "three different looks"; (i) the first look is that of the camera that records the events of the film; (ii) the second look describes the nearly voyeuristic act of the audience as they engage in watching the film proper; and (iii) the third look is that of the characters who interact with one another throughout the film. Common to the three looks is the idea that "looking" generally is seen as an active male role, while being looked at is generally seen as a passive female role, usually presented as a female characteristic. That under such a patriarchal construction, the cinema represents women as objects of desire, hence, women characters have an "appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact", because the actress is never meant to represent a female character whose actions directly affect the outcome of the plot or impel the events of the story, but, instead, she is placed in the film to support the actor portraying the male protagonist, by "bearing the burden of sexual objectification", which is unbearable for the actor.
In other words, woman is the passive object to the active male gaze, and is linked to scopophilia, the pleasure derived from looking at someone. As an expression of sexuality, scopophilia refers to sexual pleasure derived from looking at fetishes and photographs, pornography and naked bodies, etc. The categories of pleasurable viewing are two-fold: (i) voyeurism, in which the viewer derives pleasure from looking at another person from a distance, and projects fantasies, usually sexual, onto that person; and (ii) narcissism, in which the viewer's pleasure derives from self-recognition when viewing the image of another person. That in order to enjoy a film as a woman, or as a person of any gender other than the male gender, women must learn to identify with the male protagonist. In that vein, Wendy Arons said that the hyper-sexualization of female characters diminishes the symbolic threat posed by violent women in action films: "The focus on the body—as a body in ostentatious display of breasts, legs, and buttocks—does mitigate the threat that women pose to 'the very fabric of . . . society' by reassuring the [male] viewer of his male privilege, as the possessor of the objectifying [male] gaze."
In the Interview with Laura Mulvey: Gender, Gaze and Technology in Film Culture (2011), Mulvey developed the female gaze as equal to the male gaze; that women view themselves through the perspective of men. That from the feminist perspective, the male gaze either is a manifestation of unequal power, between the gazing man and the gazed upon woman, or is a conscious or subconscious effort to develop gender inequality. From that perspective, a woman who welcomes the sexual objectification of the male gaze might just be conforming to the social norms established for the benefit of men, thereby reinforcing the power of the male gaze to objectify the gazed upon woman; therefore, a woman welcoming such sexual objectification, by way of the male gaze, might be socially perceived as an exhibitionist.
The possibility of an analogous female gaze may arise from considering the male gaze. Mulvey argues that "the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze". Describing Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), by Jean Rhys, Nalini Paul indicates that the Antoinette character gazes at Rochester, placing a garland upon him, making him appear heroic: "Rochester does not feel comfortable with having this role enforced upon him; thus, he rejects it by removing the garland, and crushing the flowers."
From the male perspective, a man possesses the gaze because he is a man, whereas a woman has the gaze only when she assumes the male gazer role—when she objectifies others by gazing at them like a man. Eva-Maria Jacobsson supports Paul's description of the "female gaze" as "a mere cross-identification with masculinity", yet evidence of women's objectification of men—the discrete existence of a female gaze—can be found in the "boy toy" ads published in teen magazines, for example, despite Mulvey's contention that the gaze is property of one gender. Whether or not this is an example of female gaze or rather an internalized male gaze is up for debate, along with the other ideas on this subject. In terms of power relationships, the gazer can direct a gaze upon members of the same gender for asexual reasons, such as comparing the gazer's body image and clothing to those of the gazed-at individual.:127
With respect to her essay, Mulvey stressed in a 2011 interview with Roberta Sassatelli: "First, that the 1975 article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" was written as a polemic, and as Mandy Merck has described it, as a manifesto; so I had no interest in modifying the argument. Clearly I think, in retrospect from a more nuanced perspective, about the inescapability of the male gaze.":128
Bracha Ettinger criticizes this notion of the male gaze by her proposition of a matrixial gaze. The matrixial gaze is not operative where a "male gaze" is placed opposite to a "female gaze" and where both positive entities constitute each other from a lack (such an umbrella concept of the gaze would precisely be what scholars such as Slavoj Žižek claim is the Lacanian definition of "The Gaze"). Ettinger's proposal doesn't concern a subject and its object, existing or lacking. Rather, it concerns "trans-subjectivity" and shareability on a partial level, and it is based on her claim concerning a feminine-matrixial difference that escapes the phallic opposition of masculine/feminine and is produced in a process of co-emergence. Ettinger works from the very late Lacan, yet, from the angle she brings, it is the structure of the Lacanian subject itself that is deconstructed to a certain extent, and another kind of feminine dimension appears, with its hybrid and floating matrixial gaze.
Ways of Seeing: the Renaissance nude
In the book Ways of Seeing (1972), John Berger addressed the subject of female sexual objectification in the arts, noting that men look and women are looked at, that men act and women are acted upon according to usages and conventions, which are, at last, being questioned, but have by no means been overcome by artists. That in Renaissance nudes, women watch themselves being looked at. Such mores of usage and conventions of observation relate the objectifying male gaze to Lacan's theory of the social alienation that results from the psychological split, between seeing one's self and seeing an ideal version of one's self. In Italian Renaissance painting, especially in the genre of the nude subject, that perceptual split arises from being both the viewer and the viewed, and from seeing one's self through the gaze of other people.
Women and the gaze
Griselda Pollock, in her article, "Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity" argues that the female gaze can often be visually negated. Pollock claims Robert Doisneau's photo Sidelong Glance supports this argument. In the photo, a middle-aged bourgeois couple are looking around an art gallery. The spectator view of the picture is from inside the shop but the couple are looking in different places than the view of the spectator. The woman is commenting on an image to her husband, while the husband is being distracted by a nude female painting. The nude female painting is hung within view of the spectator. The woman is looking at another image, but it is out of view of the spectator. The man's gaze has found something more interesting and he has chosen to ignore the woman's comment. According to Pollock, "She is contrasted iconographically to the naked woman. She is denied the picturing of her desire; what she looks at is blank for the spectator. She is denied being the object of desire because she is represented as a woman who actively looks, rather than returning and confirming the gaze of the masculine spectator".
Lorraine Gamman has suggested that a female gaze can be distinguished from that of a male through its displacing of scopophilic power, not simply the inversion of the male gaze, which creates the possibility of a multiplicity of viewing angles. In fact, for Gamman, "the female gaze cohabits the space occupied by men, rather than being entirely divorced from it". Thus, for Gamman, the role of the female gaze is not to appropriate the traditional male form of "voyeurism;" its purpose is to disrupt the Phallocentric power of the male gaze by providing for other modes of looking.
Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin suggest that Mulvey's "male gaze" coincides with "the desire for visual immediacy", the erasure of the medium for uninhibited interaction with the object portrayed, which feminist film theorists treat as "a male desire that takes an overt sexual meaning when the object of representation, and therefore desire, is a woman".:79 However, Bolter and Grusin consider their term "hypermediacy", the drawing of attention to the medium (or media) and the mediating processes present in a work, to be a manifestation of Gamman's female gaze because it "is multiple and deviant in its suggestion of multiplicity—a multiplicity of viewing positions and a multiplicity of relationships to the object in view, including sexual objects".:84 According to Bolter and Grusin, then, hypermediacy, much like the female gaze, works to disrupt the myopic and monolithic male gaze by offering more angles of viewing.
At the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, Jill Soloway, in her keynote address, tried to define the "female gaze" in film-making (available on YouTube).
The Indian photographer Farhat Basir Khan attributes the female gaze to anything that's been photographed by a woman which according to Khan is actually breaking the stereotypical view created by "male-constructed" photographs that have shown women in a certain light throughout the history of visual arts.  The idea of female gaze was central to the exhibition curated by Khan titled 'Feminography' at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in January 2017.
bell hooks, in her essay titled "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectatorship", argues that Black women are placed outside of the "pleasure in looking" as an imaginary subject to the male gaze. In reading Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", hooks states,"...from a standpoint that acknowledges race, one sees clearly why black women spectators not duped by mainstream cinema would develop an oppositional gaze". In relation Lacan's mirror stage, during which a child develops self recognition and thus, the ideal ego, hooks takes up the oppositional gaze as a form of looking back, in search of the Black female body within the idealization of cinematic white womanhood.
The absence of racial relations in the context of feminist theory around the "totalizing category [of] women" engages in a process of denial which refutes the reality that many feminist film critics structure their discourse around white women. As a working-class Black woman interviewed by hooks replied, "to see black women in the position white women have occupied in film forever...", is to see a 'transfer' without 'transformation'. The oppositional gaze, therefore, encompasses resistance as well as an understanding and awareness of the politics of race and racism via cinematic whiteness inclusive of the male gaze.
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